The Four Horsemen of Wine's Apotheosis
Balance is all
In its prosaic thirst-quenching and food-pairing contexts, ordinary wine is useful; I have consumed thousands of these wines, and they have filled me with simple pleasure. They have helped me slough off the cares of the day and have added another layer of flavor to whatever I was eating. And they were forgettable. They did not connect me to the folks in the vineyard - covered against the hot sun, suckering and tying and thinning, nor to the winemaker in the cold and dark cellar, blowing warm air onto her hands so she could memorialize in her notebook what she was tasting.
These wines - and they are nearly all the wines made in the world - serve their gustatory purpose, fret their moment upon the palate, and are gone.
These wines…fret their moment upon the palate, and are gone.
But when the four horsemen of wine’s apotheosis: wood and acid and fruit and tannin, are riding in concert, they sally forth an abundance of organoleptic synchronicity and complexity that compels the lucky drinker into an esthetic state that advances to the sublime and tattoos the wine lover’s heart!
The Four Fundamental Components of Wine
The four fundamental components of all wines, each of which – in the right measure – is essential in a beautiful, balanced, and high-quality wine. For those literal-minded wine drinkers who rightly point out that there is no wood (or barrel aging) in your New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, you can think of the W of WAFT™ as standing for the method that the grapes of your favorite wine are fermented and the vessel in which the sugar of fruit is converted to the alcohol of wine. Similarly, A can stand for both literal “Acid” and the sense of freshness and length the wine has, and the T for tannin or the wine’s structure.
All great wines contain a sense of inevitability to them. There is nothing about the wine you would change; each of the four fundamentals plays an organizing and intrinsic role in defining the whatness of that offering. The seamless integration of those wines relies upon this fragile balance for their existence. Even a small movement toward more extraction or bigness would destroy what makes the wine fundamentally beautiful and delicious.
Napa and Paso Robles Often Fail Fundamental test
Many of the “cult wines” I taste from Napa and Paso Robles fail this most fundamental of tests. Ever since the 1980s, the most influential critics anointed over-ripe, clumsy, imprecise Napa Cabernet as the sine qua non of quality. High scores led to increased sales which led to more wine being made in a style that eschews balance for a Caligulan excess that drowns harmony in a burlap sack.
California winemakers can legally add water and acid (most routinely - tartaric acid) to fermenting grape juice. This is done to try to add back a sense of cohesiveness and balance to juice that was harvested at too high a sugar level. This spoofulated wine is gooey and soft; pH levels (lower pH helps to maintain stability in wine, and these crisper wines are unwelcome hosts to bad bugs) rocket to nearly 4 (when 3.4-3.6 would be far more appropriate), providing a texture of melted chocolate. Gone is all the freshness and verve and aliveness that are hallmarks of good acid management and potentially delicious age-worthiness.
…a style that eschews balance for a Caligulan excess that drowns harmony in a burlap sack.
These wines aren’t great, but they are showy. And they are gobbled up by wine collectors because the critics said they are essential. Cathy Corison and Dunn; Mayacamas and Matthiasson, all make great wines from there so this is not an indictment of the place - Napa is gorgeous country and would have to have been created if it did not already exist. If I have a bone to pick with our northerly neighbor, it is that its influence is so outsized in the minds and palates of the gatekeepers of wine that it barely allows any differentiating oxygen into the room.
Any time a place has grown so large in terms of influence as to have its own “style,” you know that sameness and insularity cannot be far away. Esther Mobley, wine writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote an article recently asking if Napa’s wines are becoming too much alike. I don’t think she fully answers her own thesis, but - again -
The balanced interplay of wood and acidity, fruit and tannin, become what wines mean
any region about which one would ask that question, has perhaps reached its apogee, and may be on its way to becoming, not a living, vibrant region, but - instead - a curio.
So to Balance, We Turn
The elements of Balance assume an importance, then, that is not just descriptive but cultural and (small r) religious. The equilibrium brought about by the deft interplay of wood and acidity, fruit and tannin, become what wines mean. These elements represent the winemaker’s need to create Beauty and feed an essential desire to take authentic care of people. Wines of Balance & Beauty look no further than their own itness for approbation. A winemaker I worked with years ago called wine a fashion business because it was always chasing the next hot thing. For the last thirty years (a blink in the history of wine) Napa profligacy has sat torpidly ascendant. We will continue to work, instead, for a more richly restrained and varied future.